Originally published in "Sex in the Time of Zombies", 2010
It was dark when she awoke. For a moment she laid in the sleeping bag with her eyes closed and listened to the shuffle of footsteps out in the hall. She could hear the heavy doors of the other cells being opened, one of the new girls sobbing softly, the murmur of conversation as her captors made their rounds . . . just like always. Every day the same sequence of events played out as if she were nothing more than a character in some macabre loop film. Judging by how muffled the sounds were, she knew she would hear seven other cell doors swing open before they made it to hers; and as the squeaking of hinges grew louder, so would the terse commands of their keepers. The same set of orders repeated in voices that sounded emotionless and bored. Day in. Day out.
Her bladder felt as if a heavy stone had grown in it overnight. The stone had sharp edges that raked against the soft, unprotected lining of the organ, flaring with pain as she struggled to hold it in. A little wooden bucket sat in one corner of her cell but even with the sleeping bag pulled up over her face she could still smell it: the stench of stale piss and caked-on shit, so thick that it seemed to lodge itself in little chunks in the back of her throat. A steady stream of urine would only make matters worse, churning yesterday's waste into a frothy, brown sludge and releasing even more of the noxious vapors. No, it was better to wait. Before they left her cell, they would empty it into the drum which sat across the hall. If not clean, at least it would be cleaner.
All part of the routine.
She finally opened her eyes and pulled the sleeping bag down to her shoulders. The view that greeted her was the usual brick walls that glistened with condensation, the concrete floor with its Rorschach stains of various bodily fluids; her cell was no larger than a broom closet and the only light came through the small, barred window on the wooden door...and even then only when torches had been lit in the hall. The wall opposite the door also had one of these windows, but beyond it was only a darkness so complete that she could only hear the things that shuffled on the other side.
That would change soon, however. It was also part of the daily routine; the moment her door opened, they would be at the window, grasping through the bars with hands that looked shriveled and mummified in the dim light of the cell. With fingernails worn down to ragged splinters, they would reach through and claw at the air, scratching at the bricks as if they could somehow erode the rough mortar through persistence alone. The creatures had deteriorated to the point that they no longer had an odor but anytime a freshie was added to the group there would be weeks where the stench of decay overpowered even the toilet bucket. Somehow, that was the worst part of the ordeal: smelling the greasy, sweet reek of rotting meat and knowing that once it had been someone just like her. Someone who had learned to cope with life in the cells as best as she could. Someone whom she'd spoken with, perhaps, through the bars on their doors. Someone who was no longer useful....
“Assume the position, Mole.” The voice was closer now. Maybe only four doors down or so. “I said, assume the position, Mole!"
More annoyed than angry; but if the unseen woman continued to resist, things could turn bad quickly. She'd heard--and experienced--the beatings before: the dull thud and smack of sawed-off broomsticks against thighs; the cries of pain, the tears and sobbing and pleading apologies.
“Just do, it.” she muttered. “Make it easy on yourself, Mole."
She felt her face grow warm and her stomach churned in a nauseous mixture of disgust and shame. Mole. She'd actually called the woman that. Like their captors, she'd stripped away every fiber of personality from her fellow prisoner with a single word. A word that reduced a living, breathing, thinking person into nothing more than a single characteristic. A word that left her mouth feeling so dirty that she would rather drink her bucket of waste than utter it again.
She, too, had a name once; but now she was simply Hips. Like her mother and boyfriend, it had disappeared into the mists of time and memory. Sometimes, while the darkened hallway beyond her cell echoed with snores, she would lay in the gloom and whisper that name over and over. As if it were some sort of mantra that could magically teleport her from this dank dungeon to some distant place where she would feel the warmth of sun on her skin and hear birds chirping overhead. Without fail, though, it always took her mind back to that last day of freedom. To the day she lost everything …
They were hunkered down in a burned out storefront, hidden behind the charred remains of the front counter; the sun had set several hours earlier and a darkness had fallen across the town that made it seem as if they had been plunged into the void of space. The days of street lamps and the soft glow of curtained windows were over; no headlights splayed across the soot stained walls, no winking neon or stop lights cycling through their array of colors. And on that particular night there wasn't even the pale luminescence of moonlight to chase away the shadows.
With the darkness came silence as well. She'd never realized how noisy society was until it had all been taken away. The humming of air conditioners, traffic four blocks over hissing through rain-slick streets, the muffled beat of music seeping through the walls of bars and clubs: all those things were missing now. The million other tiny sounds her ears had learned to take for granted had been replaced with a silence so complete that only a high pitched ringing filled her ears.
And it was really the quiet that worried her most. They had ran their hands along the cinder-like edge of the counter and smeared the dark ash across their faces and arms commando style. They'd curled up beneath a black tarp Jeremy had found a few days back, had tried everything within their power to pass themselves off as just another cluster of shadows. So, in a sense, the darkness was their ally. Her boyfriend, however, had a tendency to talk in his sleep. In the bedroom of their apartment it had been nothing more than softly muttered gibberish, not even loud enough to wake her if she were sleeping. But out here that same sound would be like a loudspeaker broadcasting in the night: we're here, we're hiding over here, come get us, come quick...
Which was one of the reasons sleep came in short, quick bursts. Even though she was so exhausted that her muscles felt as if they were made of overcooked spaghetti, she had to be ready. Ready to clamp her hand over Jeremy's mouth, to push the words back into his throat if she could. Ready to keep her loved ones safe.
She didn't have to worry about Mama, however. About two weeks earlier they'd been attempting to sneak through a heavily infested area just outside of Redfield. There were rumors of a FEMA rescue station nearby and her stepfather, Denny, had insisted on scouting the route ahead of them. They'd followed about fifty yards behind and hid behind dumpsters or wrecked cars when he'd form his hand into a fist and then move on when he'd wave. Start and stop. Duck and hide, picking their way through the rubble and debris of a once proud society. But then he'd been pulled down by a pack of corpses that seemed to appear from nowhere, ripped apart right before their very eyes. Sometimes she'd still see him in her dreams: the way he fought and clawed and punched even as his knees buckled from the force of the assault . . . the bright, crimson arc of blood that spurted with slow-motion clarity as teeth pulled strands of flesh and muscle from a throat no longer capable of producing sound. He'd been a good husband and decent stepfather but, in the end, had made a horrible scout. He should have pushed his ego aside and listened to her suggestions instead of simply shrugging them off. Maybe if she'd been the one running point things would've turned out differently.
But she'd learned quickly that in this new world regrets could quickly get your ass killed. You had to focus on the here and now, to push memory into the farthest corners of your mind and bury it beneath the weight of more pressing concerns. Food. Clean water. Shelter and survival.
The future operated on the same principle. In her previous life she'd had dreams: she'd finish college, get a job with a decent newspaper in a medium size town, get married, kids eventually. At some hazy point on the timeline of her life, the grandchildren would come bursting through the front door with squeals of Grandma!; she'd shower them with hugs and treats and smile serenely at the man by her side . . . the man whose face she'd seen morph from the smooth flesh of the young into a wrinkled mask of experience. But things had changed, hadn't they? Hopes and ambitions were now exclusively short-term; her ambitions had been reduced to making it through yet another night alive, of finding that mythical pocket of society that had somehow been untouched by the insanity that had swept over the world like a tsunami of death and mutilation. Life had been reduced to an almost constant state of now and those who dared to dream too long would quickly find themselves wrapped in the darkness of a sleep from which they would never awaken.
The world had changed. And she, in turn, had been forced to change with it.
The sun had just begun to paint the eastern horizon with streaks of amber and orange when she heard it: a scuffling sound from outside, so soft and furtive that it was almost lost beneath the rhythmic lull of her companions' breathing. Footsteps? The sound of well-worn soles sliding over concrete and asphalt?
She closed her eyes and tried to listen for the sounds to repeat, to lock in their distance and general location; but her heart hammered in her chest with such force that she could only hear the whooshing of blood as it surged through her veins.
The cold hand of fear squeezed her stomach and caused bile to shoot up through her esophagus and flooded her mouth with stinging bitterness; beads of sweat dotted her forehead and the muscle below her left eye twitched like a caged bird longing for flight.
She held her breath.
Remained perfectly still.
Maybe it had only been the breeze. A yellowed scrap of newspaper, perhaps. Or a small animal. Dogs and cats were few and far between these days, having been hunted almost to extinction by the same masters who'd once showered them with toys and treats. They were rare, but not entirely unheard of.
Could that be it then? Nothing more than a mangy cur scavenging for carrion?
She took a breath through her nostrils so slowly that it took nearly ten seconds for her lungs to fill. She could smell the musty scent of age within the store, the smoky ghost of the fire that had gutted this place and refused to leave its haunt . . . the sharp bite of dried sweat. If the stench of rotting flesh existed outside the shattered shop window, it was masked by these other odors.
But surely the reek of a rotter would've overpowered them? It had been so hot lately that the sun-bloated corpses who staggered across the landscape traveled in a cloud of fetor so repugnant that even the flies shunned them.
Had she imagined it all? Perhaps she'd slipped into sleep for a fraction of a second and her mind had amplified the sound of the tarp shifting into something much more sinister?
That had to be it. The dead were notoriously noisy, caring not for stealth or cunning. While it was true that they didn't grunt or growl or groan, they were clumsy for the most part and prone to knocking over precariously balanced piles of rubble or kicking old bottles as they shuffled forward. Surely a freshie or rotter would've tripped across the string of tin cans she'd tied between the splintered telephone pole and an old parking meter by now; they weren't smart enough to avoid traps, after all. Not even such primitive early detection systems as her's.
Mere feet away, something thumped against the floorboards of the store and every muscle in her body tensed.
Fight or run? Shit, how many of them are there? Shit, shit, shit . . . .
A long, slow creak as the wooden planks flexed beneath the weight of the intruder.
Just one. Has to be. More would be nosier. I can deal with just one. I know I can.
Her hand began crawling across the floor as if of its own accord, its fingertips searching for the cool reassurance of the tire iron.
Two blows. Quick crack to the skull to stun it. Then plunge the business end into the eye socket, go for the brain, use all your strength, all your weight, drive that fucker home.
The muscles in her arms and legs had begun to quiver with a mixture of fear and adrenaline; her heart thudded out a cryptic message in Morse code, and her throat felt as if it had somehow expanded to allow more air to flow into her lungs.
You can do this, girl. You wake up Mama and Jeremy and they'll be dead before they've even cleared the cobwebs outta their minds. You have to do this.
Her fingers wrapped around the smooth metal of the tire tool and she lifted it from the floor so slowly that it almost seemed as if she suspected it would disintegrate if hoisted too quickly. Though her palms were warm and slick, the weight of the weapon immediately caused her breathing to even out.
Drop that fucker fast and then get the hell outta here . . .
Opening her eyes, she saw a dark shadow against the golden glow of sunrise on the wall. The silhouette was human shaped and grew larger with each beat of her heart. She couldn't lie to herself any longer: they were not alone in this old store and the time had come to walk the tightrope between life and death.
She sprung from the floor with the speed of a striking serpent and vaulted across the counter in a single, fluid move. In her mind, a shrill battle cry trilled through the stillness of the morning and she felt the spirits of a thousand Amazonian warriors raise their spears and shields in solidarity. In reality, however, she was as silent and swift as sudden death; only her eyes reflected the intensity of the rage that boiled within her, the grim determination of a woman who would not go gentle into that good night.
The man across from her scrambled backwards as his hands flew up in an open palmed display of surrender; his eyes grew wide beneath his curly bangs and he continued backpedaling as his hoarse voice stammered words so quickly that the syllables all ran together.
“Wait! No! Alive! I'm alive! I'm living, here!”
For a moment, his pleading didn't register in her mind. She continued her assault; the tire tool was raised above her head like the sword of a charging samurai and, like those legendary weapons, seemed to demand a taste of blood before allowing itself to be lowered.
The man's hands shot to the rifle slung over his shoulder and snapped it into firing position as his knees braced himself against the force of the attack.
“Damn it, I'm not one of them!”
His sharp tone cut through the haze of battle and she stopped so suddenly that momentum almost caused her to stumble forward. They stood facing each other for what seemed to be an eternity: she with the tire iron poised and ready to strike, he with the bore of his rifle staring at her like a dark, unblinking eye.
“Please, I don't want to shoot you. But I will. I swear to God, I will.”
“You're . . . you're really alive?”
“No, I'm the smartest damn zombie that ever existed. What the hell do you think? Of course, I'm alive.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and a familiar voice whispered in her ear.
“It's okay, sweetie . . . “
Jeremy. She'd been so focused on her attack that she hadn't even heard him stir. But it stood to reason that the flurry of activity would've awakened him. Mama, too, most likely.
“Look, folks, I'm here to help. I really am.”
Together, the two of them lowered their respective weapons. She was breathing heavily now, her chest heaving with each breath, and for some reason tears had begun to make the world around her swim in and out of focus. She blinked rapidly, trying to focus on the bearded man in the tattered clothes whom she'd been mere seconds away from killing; but he wavered as if she were viewing him from the other side of a waterfall and the first tear had just begun to leave its warm path down her cheek as he unclipped the walkie talkie from his belt.
“Eden Team, this is Serpent Six, over.” There was a hiss of static and then his voice again. “Serpent Six to Eden Team. Come in, Eden Team. Over.”
“Serpent Six this is Eden Team. Over.”
The voice was thin and soft, but it was the voice of someone else like them. Someone left alive in a world ruled by the dead.
“Eden Team, I have three survivors. Two female, one male, none apparently infected. Repeat . . . I have three survivors. Over.”
“Serpent Six, rendezvous at Alpha Base One at oh-nine-hundred hours. Reanimate activity in sector seven high. Advance with extreme caution. We'll notify The Garden that the mission was successful and we're coming home. Over.”
“Copy that, Eden Team. Serpent Six, out.”
There hadn't been much time for conversation, but she'd learned the man's name was Donnely and he was apparently nothing more than a small cog in a much larger machine. What the man on the other end of the radio had referred to as The Garden.
The Garden, Donnely had explained, was a collective that had established a fortified outpost about half a day's walk from their current location. Whereas the dregs of humanity seemed content with cowering in the shadows like frightened animals, The Garden had loftier ambitions. They were going to rebuild society, reclaim the coveted position at the top of the food chain, and re-establish mankind's dominance over the world. The human race, he said, had been decimated and the undead far outnumbered the living. But in the future they envisioned, the tide would be turned. Children would be trained as efficiently as soldiers and once their numbers were great enough they would rise up against the undead in one, final battle. Within fifteen to twenty years, tops, the world would be theirs again and the blight of the living dead would be no more than a chapter in history books yet to be written.
It had sounded so promising: a place where they would be sheltered from the horrors of the outside world, a society that still functioned, that sent out teams to find those still left alive and bring them back . . . no wonder they referred to themselves with terms like Eden and The Garden. True, their ambitions sounded lofty. But at least they still had goals and plans. At least they could envision a world that consisted of something more than picking at the carcass of civilization like nomadic scavengers. At least they had hope.
So they had followed this man, Donnelly. She and Jeremy and Mama had allowed him to guide them through the maze of mangled cars and toppled buildings. They had slipped through the wreckage of the city like ghosts, skirting around enclaves of rotters so skillfully that the dead never realized they were there. For the most part, they progressed in silence; but every so often, when Donnely decided they were well out of harm's way, they would stop for a quick rest. During this down time, they would whisper to one another and she slowly began to grasp the full extent of The Garden's plans.
“To beat your enemy,” Donnely had told them, “you first have to understand him.”
He was part of Eden Team, whose job was to search out those wandering the wastelands who would be able to assist in repopulating the cities of the earth. But there was also a group he referred to as The Tree of Knowledge. Their entire purpose, he said, was to study the undead menace. But not, just the ways in which they could be dispatched. No, The Tree of Knowledge wanted to know everything they could about their adversaries.
“Everyone knows a bite will kill your ass and bring you back. But did you know that any exchange of bodily fluids will do the same damn thing? You kiss someone who's infected, for example, and get even the smallest amount of spit in your mouth and you're done for.”
When he spoke about The Garden and its various projects, his voice raised slightly in pitch and the words came more rapidly. Breathlessly, he told them about the actual gardens where they grew crops, the kitten nurseries with their self-replenishing sources of meat, and the various ways they had of collecting and purifying water; and the entire time, his green eyes shone with the light of the true believer.
His enthusiasm was as contagious as any of the corpses in this God forsaken land. As they pressed on, her mind was filled with images of what The Garden would be like: how she would never have to know the sharp pangs of hunger or the fear of darkness again. Perhaps she and Jeremy would be able to recapture the sort of life that, just hours ago, she was sure they had been robbed of. Only, hopefully, it would be better than she'd ever dreamed.
Her stepfather had never really approved of her boyfriend. He'd said Jeremy was weak and unfocused, that she could do so much better than a guy whose major goal in life was to beat the most current level of whatever video game he was playing. And, on some level, she'd kind of agreed with Denny . . . even though she would never outwardly admit it. She'd silently hoped that someday her boyfriend would tire of being just another telemarketer tethered to his cubical by a headset; maybe he'd start to dream of management or even actually creating the games he loved playing so much. A little time at the gym wouldn't have hurt either . . . even before fresh food had become as rare as gold, Jeremy had been thin and gangly. Kind of like a tall, pubescent boy really.
But maybe The Garden would have the positive effect on him that had somehow been lacking in their previous lives. Perhaps there he would find something he was so passionate about that his eyes would spark with excitement the way Donnelly's did. He might even decide that he wanted to become part of Eden Team and those thin arms might bulk up with the same sinewy muscle that strained at the sleeves of their guide's t-shirt. Not that she wanted him to be exactly like their new-found benefactor; she did love him for who he was, after all. But a little maturity wouldn't hurt . . . would it?
After what seemed like hours of walking, the group finally crested a small hill that overlooked a valley lush with trees and a patchwork of multicolored foliage. The sun was hanging low in the sky but the temperature had already begun to climb which caused her skin to be coated with a sheen of sweat. From this distance she could just make out a stream that snaked its way through the valley below; its waters sparkled as if millions of pixies bobbed on its surface and it was all too easy to imagine how cool that water would be as it lapped against her sunburned skin, how good it would feel as it quenched the dry harshness of her throat . . . .
Donnely's command had pulled her thoughts away from the meandering creek and back to the cluster of camouflaged tents clustered just within the grove of trees before them. Three men walked out to meet him, each with a rifle slung over their shoulders by a thin strap. All of the men were similar in build to their guide: muscular, seemingly well-fed and healthy, and obviously selected for Eden Team because of their athletic physique. However the center of attention seemed to be a short bulldog of a man with a neck so thick and brown that it could have passed for the trunk of a small tree. As the others spoke, this man kept shooting glances at the newcomers through his spectacles and something about his gaze had made her feel like an insect beneath a microscope.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot and kept discovering new patches of skin on her arms and face that needed scratched; something about this little man and his cold, hard eyes made her uneasy.
“Must be their leader.” Jeremy said. “Kinda looks like a general, huh?”
She'd nodded in response, maybe uttered some non-committal answer . . . she couldn't be sure. All she knew was that, for reasons she couldn't understand, she now felt as uneasy as if they were standing among a group of ravenous rotters. But that was ridiculous. These people were here to help, right? They were Eden Team. From The Garden.
The group of men disbanded, Donnely disappearing into the woods as the others walked slowly toward them. The one Jeremy had referred to as a general seemed to be smirking slightly and she'd gulped hard, trying to tell herself that it was simply thirst that made her feel as if her airways were constricting.
Maybe if they'd actually said something, she would have felt better. But no. General Bulldog and one of them men stopped several yards away from them and seemed to study the small group with their eyes. At the same time, the other man circled around them and for some reason the image of a pack of dogs came to mind: the way they would circle their prey, cutting off any means of escape before lunging into their attack.
But that was silly. Of course these men would be wary. The world was full of people who saw the apocalypse as a handy excuse to simply do whatever the hell they wanted. Rapists, murderers, thieves: as the number of survivors had decreased, the sins of those left alive had grown exponentially. It made sense that they would be very careful about the people who were brought into their fold.
It was all entirely logical. But logic did little to assuage the nervous tightening in her stomach and even less to silence the voice in the back of her mind which whispered that something just wasn't right.
General Bulldog's eyes studied her for a moment and for some reason she felt the same way she had when she'd walked through the din of catcalls and innuendo of construction workers. Like she was nothing more than a piece of meat, something to be had and discarded.
“Useable. Good hips.” His voice was gruff and abrupt and somehow sounded as if he were passing judgment on her. She immediately felt herself stiffen as her hands balled into fists; she wanted to spit some caustic remark back at him, but her mind balked and left her simply standing there with her mouth agape.
The little man's eyes darted to Jeremy and for a moment he almost seemed to wince.
“Weak. Bad stock.”
Then onto Mama.
A moment of silence before the man spoke again.
“Tree of Life has an adequate number of test subjects. These two are useless.”
It happened with the quickness of a lightning strike. One moment, these two groups of people were simply standing on the hillside staring at one another as a cloud passed across the sun. The next, General Bulldog and his underling had their rifles shouldered as if by magic. Two shots rang out and echoed through the valley below, startling a flock of birds into flight as twin puffs of spent gunpowder filled the morning with their sulfuric odor.
Jeremy and Mama's heads snapped back as a crimson mist seemed to spray in slow motion from the dime-sized holes that had appeared in their foreheads. Their bodies crumpled to the ground, falling atop one another while unblinking eyes stared at the boots of the men who'd killed them.
She'd screamed and turned to run then, spinning around just in time to see the stock of a rifle racing toward her face. A flash of pain, dark spots that had exploded like antimatter fireworks in her field of vision, the sensation of falling backwards . . . and then nothing but darkness.
When she came to, her forehead throbbed as if her heart had taken up residence just above the bridge of her nose. Her entire face ached and she could feel something tacky on her bangs, something that felt like half-dried glue. Reaching up, she winced as her fingertips brushed her wound: streaks of pain radiated from a central point and her head immediately felt as if it had tripled in size; she was nauseous, as if her stomach were on the verge of purging what little food it contained, and she viewed the room she was in as if through a fog. But even so, she realized that the dark stains on her fingers were partially congealed blood.
“Just cooperate.” The voice was familiar, but not overly so. Where had she heard it before? “It'll be easier if you do.”
She turned her head toward the source of the words and it seemed as if it took the world a fraction of a second to catch up with her. But when it did, she saw Donnely. He was on the other side of the door, looking in through the little window with his hands wrapped around the bars. For a moment he became nothing more than a blur before snapping back into sharp focus.
“You should feel honored, really. They don't select just anyone.”
He seemed to be looking everywhere but directly at her. As if he couldn't bring himself to meet her gaze.
“Wh . . . where am I?” Her voice sounded as if it were coming from the end of an infinitely long tunnel and only the stabs of pain that accompanied the movement of her jaws convinced her that it was her own.
“The Garden. You're safe now.” Something about his tone sounded almost apologetic. Or as if he were trying to convince himself of his own statement.
She closed her eyes for a second and was suddenly back on the hillside. She saw Jeremy and Mama lying in the grass, their blood mingling in a collective pool below them. Unmoving. Silent. Dead.
Her eyes snapped open and, even though it hurt like hell to do so, her brow furrowed as she glared at the man on the other side of the door.
“You bastard. What they hell have you done? What the fuck . . . .”
But then she was sobbing, her back heaving with tears as her fingers pressed against her temples and bubbles of snot erupted from her nostrils.
“I'm . . . I'm sorry. It had to be done. For the good of all. For . . . humanity. See? There's a greater good. A higher purpose. But for what it's worth . . . I am sorry.”
That was the last time she'd ever seen Donnely. In the beginning, she'd entertained fantasies of him returning in the middle of the night; dreams of keys rattling in the lock and the door swinging open to reveal him silhouetted by torchlight , ready to whisk her away from this place and make amends for the evil he'd brought upon her.
But that was so long ago and she now knew he would never return. On some level, he probably did feel bad for his part in what had happened; but she couldn't help but remember the look in his eyes as he'd described the work done here. What she'd rightfully identified as the passion of a true believer. Any guilt that kept him awake at night was undoubtedly overshadowed by the zeal of his belief.
The door to her cell swung open and two men shuffled inside. This morning it was the ones she thought of as Fred and Barney, which meant that Larry and Curly would be making the evening rounds.
Barney glanced down at the clipboard he held in his hands and thumbed through the pages with bored detachment.
“Says here her last period was two weeks ago.”
Fred nodded and propped his sawed-off broomstick against the wall.
“Assume the position, Hips.”
In the beginning, she'd fought. She'd scratched and bit and kicked and ripped out clumps of hair. She'd been beaten until it hurt to take a breath, had been held down and forced to take part in the routine no matter how much she squirmed and writhed. She'd had breakfast and dinner withheld. Even though it was the temperature and consistency of warm puke, it was still food . . . and she'd gotten tired. So tired of the purple and green bruises, of trying to sleep when it felt as though her ribs had been kicked by a wild mule. No matter how hard she fought the result was always the same. Donnely had been right: it was much easier just to cooperate.
And so it was that she closed her eyes, bent over in a wide-legged stance, and gripped her ankles. She imagined that she was back in her little apartment: Lady Gaga was on the radio and Jeremy was bitching about some cock-knocking camper who'd just picked him off three times in a row. Outside, an ice cream truck called to children with its pied piper jingle and the scent of curry drifted from the Singh's apartment next door.
She tried not to let the cold glass of the rectal thermometer shatter the illusion as it invaded her body, tried to convince herself that she was only gritting her teeth because Jeremy had launched into another curse-laden tirade against the sniper who'd become the bane of his existence.
The DJ on the radio was calling for sunny skies with a ten percent chance of precipitation; but then his voice melded with Barney's nasal whine as she felt the thermometer glide out of her most secret of places.
“Congratulations, Hips . . . you're ovulating.”
She heard one of them crossing the room, cursing beneath his breath as he picked up the waste bucket with a slosh.
“Hard to believe someone so pretty can smell so damn bad. Shit.”
She kept her eyes closed as she stood upright, continued envisioning her apartment, the potted plant by the door, the opening notes of The Entertainer as her cellphone lit up with Mama's number.
It had been Fred complaining about the bucket. Which meant Barney was currently bringing in the gruel that passed as breakfast. As if on cue, the smell of the meat and vegetable slop overpowered the curry of her dreamworld.
“Eat up, Hips. You're gonna need your energy.”
They both laughed as if they'd heard the joke the DJ had just made. And then her door creaked shut, there was the click of the lock, footsteps, and the entire scene replaying itself in Scar's cell.
She bit her bottom lip and tried to take a long, slow breath but the air seemed to stick somewhere in the back of her throat.
She knew what that meant. Within an hour, there would be a stream of men coming through her cell. Each one having his way with her. Each one filling her with millions of tiny swimmers, some of which were destined to trickle down thighs that would soon feel raw and stingy. For the next few days, she would know practically every man in The Garden. Multiple times. Some would border on brutality with their savage thrusts and the twisting of her nipples; others would behave as if this were simply another chore, no different than cooking the slop or slaughtering the cats which went into it. A select few would be shy and apologetic, each telling her that she had to understand that there was a greater good.
They had to repopulate the world after all. They had to outnumber the dead. To have children who would grow into soldiers. To keep the gene pool as diverse as possible.
Within a few months, her fate would be decided. If their seed didn't take purchase, if her belly didn't begin to balloon out and her monthly flow come to end, then she would be declared barren. She didn't know exactly how it would be done, but the end result would be the same: she would end up on the other side of this cell, in the darkness with the other rotters, just another subject for The Tree of Life to experiment on.
She opened her eyes and saw their hands reaching through the bars of the wall's window. Flaky skin, some deteriorated to the point that strands of muscle could be seen beneath patches that had been eaten away by time. They grabbed and grasped with mindless enthusiasm, seeking purchase that would never come.
But the living would come. And come. And come.
To them, she was nothing more than an incubator, just another breeder in a long row of nameless women.
She walked over to the hands, keeping just out of reach and inciting them into a frenzy with her presence.
Those men had killed Jeremy. Had killed Mama.
They'd locked her up and humiliated her on a daily basis.
Raped her countless times all in the name of procreation.
And they'd kill her, too, if she didn't produce a child soon. But what if she did? Nine months of respite? Nine months of being in the maternity wing before being transported back to this dingy cell? Wouldn't it be worse then? Knowing that there was better food, more comfortable quarters with no chance of beatings for fear of damaging the fetus? It would all begin again. The daily inspections. Assuming the position. The monthly violations.
The hands were so close that she could see the little black specks beneath what was left of the fingernails. They clutched at the air, seeming to squeeze invisible stress balls with sheer abandon.
Even now Donnely, and others like him, were probably out there. Scouring the countryside. Searching for fresh stock. For new victims, for more women to defile.
How long would this go on?
Her voice was a soft whisper but was filled with more resolve than the loudest shout. She could still fight back. She could bring the entire Garden crumbling down, could utterly destroy all they'd worked so hard to build. And it would serve the bastards right.
She extended her hand quickly before she had a chance to lose her nerve. Thrusting it into the darkness, through the bars on the little windows, squeezing her eyes shut.
It didn't hurt as badly as she thought it would. The bite was quick and felt no different, really, than the time she'd been nipped by the neighbor's chow as a kid. Wrestling her arm free from the rotter's weak grasp she immediately wrapped the open wound in the hem of her dirty smock and applied pressure. Blood blossomed on the fabric like a rose in a dirty field of snow, but it had been nothing more than a flesh wound. Within fifteen minutes, the blood had clotted and she licked the iron tasting flecks from the tip of her finger. If anyone bothered to ask, she's simply say she'd jabbed a splinter from the door into it. But no one would. She knew this as surely as she knew the contagion was flowing through her veins, poisoning her healthy cells with the infection of the walking dead.
“Bring it on, fuckers!.” She shouted so loudly that her vocal cords felt strained with the words. “Bring it fucking on!”
At the same time she heard another voice, this one echoing through the corridors of mind instead of the hallway with its series of cells and captives: it was the voice of Donnely, culled from her memory.
“Did you know that any exchange of bodily fluids will do the same damn thing? You kiss someone who's infected, for example, and get even the smallest amount of spit in your mouth and you're done for.”
So let them come. Let the parade of rapists begin. She would spread her legs and would welcome them into her body, would take every single man in the colony if they sent him. She would exchange bodily fluids with each and every one and let them have their way.
She would have her revenge.
From down the hall she heard a door swing open. A male voice doing an off-key rendition of Snoop Dogg's Sexual Seduction.
Laying back on her sleeping bag, she closed her eyes and waited for him to enter her cell.
“My name is Alejandra.” she whispered.
“My name is Alejandra.”